Hard Lessons

To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song, life has been giving me some hard lessons lately, about pain, loss, disability and hope. Years of chronic pain, my mother's death, my hearing impairment and other serious medical problems have sorely tested me. When I finally found a doctor who took my pain seriously, he asked me why I had checked "suicidal thoughts" on my new patient questionnaire. I told him, "I have 30 years ahead of me if I live as long as my mother did. I refuse to live in pain for another 30 years."

In all that I've learned and written since then, the most surprising discovery has been my ability to remain optimistic about my life and my future. If you hear despair, anger, frustration and fear in what I post here, please don't turn away. All is not dark, and eventually a glimmer of hope will light the path ahead.

Friday, March 8, 2013


One of my disabilities (or life’s challenges, if you prefer) is moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears. The problem was noted in a hearing test I took in the 1980’s when starting a new job in a manufacturing facility with noisy equipment. It was meant to be a baseline test, so I was surprised to hear about the hearing loss. Since I was in my early 30’s then and perceived no problem with my hearing, I didn’t take it seriously.  

Twenty years later, I began to experience hearing problems that puzzled me because I could still hear people talking, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I thought deafness was a problem with volume, not comprehension. At the time, I was also dealing with undiagnosed and untreated chronic pain, a new job in a noisy environment, the care of my elderly mother, and some other problems. I gave the pain top priority (and who wouldn’t?). Eventually I had another hearing test and wasn’t surprised to learn about the hearing loss. I didn’t have enough money to buy hearing aids at the time, which was frustrating, but at least I knew I wasn’t losing my sometimes tenuous grip on my mind. I’ve had hearing aids for 2 years now and although they do help, neither do they correct my hearing the way eyeglasses correct vision.  

Recently the header for a newspaper ad for a local hearing aid store proclaimed, “Use it or Lose it!” This was followed by:

§  Communication occurs in the brain.

§  When we lose our ability to hear, the ear stops sending needed information to our brain, affecting the ability to understand what is being said.

§  “Auditory Deprivation” can impair the way the brain processes sound.

§  In most cases the solution is hearing aids; sending the correct information to the brain, protecting it from atrophy. 

I don’t know how scientifically true any of that is, but it makes some sense to me, and it makes me wonder if 20 years of living without hearing aids caused some permanent damage in my brain. I might use a less discouraging term for this damage than “atrophy”. I know that my hearing loss has affected my relationships with other people, whose speech was so hard for me to hear and understand clearly, and who couldn’t understand why I seemed to ignore so much of what they said to me. I don’t think my poor hearing hindered my business career (though I could be wrong about that), partly because I spent several decades traveling overseas in order to work with associates whose language I didn’t speak, so that no one expected me to understand what they were saying and I was usually accompanied by an English-speaking associate who took pains to translate clearly. 

Just the official term for my kind of deafness – sensory neural – makes me wonder if the chronic pain I experience has also impaired my brain’s ability to process and interpret physical sensation. That could explain why even very subtle or gentle touch can feel like a bodily assault nowadays.

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